Frankfurt, Germany: This is the Old World: a place where the tawdry revelations about Kobe Bryant are handled in a small-type paragraph, where people snort at the import of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, where the NFL is a brutal curiosity. A place where women's soccer is still third class, where Germany's 3-0 upset of the Americans in the semifinals of the World Cup on Oct. 5 was not billed as a metaphor for the countries' split over Gulf War II, because no one in Europe cared enough to draw the parallel. A men's match would have drawn that comparison and worse, yet even on Sunday, with the ultimate prize at stake, the sport that launched a thousand riots felt like a nice little game.
At 7 p.m. one sports bar in Frankfurt switched channels to show the country's final against Sweden. Of the 50 people there, only eight stared at the screen. "Women's football isn't that popular yet," said Jesko Meyer, a 33-year-old fund manager. "I only knew this morning the time of the game. For the men, everyone would know a year before what time." Across town 35 Germans sat watching the game on a big screen in another bar but spent most of the time eating or talking. Only one woman sat on the edge of her chair in front of the TV screen for the full 97 minutes and 34 seconds, talking to herself, growling at the players, waving away the waitress who dared get into her sightline while serving a beer.
"Bitte...bitte...BITTE! [Please...please...PLEASE!]" yelled Christina Haverkamp as her team rushed forward. Here, after all, was Germany in the most important game the women's team had ever played. Yet even surrounded by Germans, Haverkamp was alone. The other patrons rolled their eyes when she glared or muttered.
Sixteen months ago, when the German men's team lost to Brazil in the World Cup final, thousands gathered in one of Frankfurt's plazas and watched on a giant TV screen. Crowds jammed bars, you could follow the play-by-play walking down the street, moans and cheers filled the air. But when Nia Kunzer whiplashed a crossbar-grazing header to snap Sunday's gorgeously tense affair and give Germany the 2-1 overtime win, there was none of that. Haverkamp, a fortysomething human-rights activist who not only played soccer as a teen but also was the first woman to study it in her college (earning a degree in athletic training), relaxed the instant the game ended—and then tensed up all over again.
"I'm very happy," she said, "but I'm sad about the attention this got in Germany. The women showed very good football, very elegant. But it's very machismo here. Terrible. Even when the women are so good."
It should've come as no surprise, I suppose, that women's soccer barely registered on the radar anywhere in Europe. How could it compete? What with the start of the Rugby World Cup in Australia and Saturday's final frenzied round of qualifying for the 2004 European soccer championships, men were battling all over the continent. There was the usual England-on-the-brink madness: English footballers threatened to boycott their game against Turkey (they were upset defenseman Rio Ferdinand had been pulled off the team for failing a drug test), then played to a rough 0-0 tie. Greece endured a week of strikes that only heightened worries about its ability to host next summer's Olympic Games, then beat Northern Ireland to qualify for its first European Championship in 24 years. France crushed Israel amid tight security. The Czechs smacked Austria.
In Germany they did pay some attention, but only after celebrating the men's victory over Iceland and Formula One king Michael Schumacher's Sunday drive for a record sixth world title. It didn't help that the women's tournament was played in the U.S. The Teutonic quota of U.S. news was already saturated with headlines about Roy Horn and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It helped even less that it was women's soccer, which most here consider an American oddity, a competition embraced only when you can't compete with the big boys. The American reality of female players' being more popular than male players is dismissed as absurd.
That attitude, of course, is part of what makes Europe so compelling. We are still in the dawn of the euro's life and while the forces pushing a United States of Europe may be unstoppable, there are some passions no European Community can paper over. The Turks defended their stadium with 7,500 police to prevent English fans entering. Here, unity stops at the locker room door. Here, sports reveal best what bubbles beneath: The frightening passion, the national pride, the bald chauvinism that seemingly trumps all—even the fact that the women's final was better than any of the men's games played the day before.
It was so good, with its great goalkeeping, relentless attacking and the desperation that pushed both sides, that in the first minutes afterward, it was possible to imagine the streets vibrating with joy. Frankfurt, after all, is home to five of Germany's best players. Surely there would be cars honking, people chanting....
"There will be nothing," Haverkamp said. "You will not even know the women won."